Sharon Salzberg, is offering lunchtime meditations with a creative twist. Each 45-minute-long meditation session, led by a variety of experienced teachers, is inspired by a work of art from the Rubin’s impressive and esoteric collection.
The program was originally scheduled to run through September, but it’s so wildly popular that it’s been extended indefinitely. YogaCity NYC’s Megan Mook caught up with Salzberg for a meditation on loving kindness, and an interview on the relationship between art and meditation.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the cafe at the Rubin Museum buzzed with patrons enjoying tea and exotic snacks, but downstairs, in the dimly lit theater, the energy was pleasantly subdued. I was shocked to see so many people at 1pm on a hot summer day, but the theater, which seats about 150, was packed to capacity.
Projected onto the stage was a large image of a 17th century Tara, the much loved protector-deity of Tibet, the epitome of loving kindness, and the day’s theme. Afterwards, there would be a guided tour of the actual image for anyone who wanted to find out more about this goddess.
As Salzberg took the stage, she looked up at Tara. “I wish I could sit facing her like you all. I would very much like that.”
She was so sincere I wondered if she might pivot her chair and turn her back to us, but instead she sat down, smiled, and gave a succinct introduction to loving kindness—metta in Pali—both as a concept and as a form of meditation, which she called “a heart space of inclusion and connection, rather than feeling alienated and apart like we often do.”
She then guided us through the practice of wishing well-being, first to one’s self, and then gradually out to others. Along the way, she peaked our interests with antidotes from her days in Burma in the 1970s.
Afterwards, participants asked questions. One woman, who said she’d been in stressful meetings all day, asked about a difficult colleague. I turned my head, scanning for this articulate, well-dressed woman. Suddenly, I was vividly in awe of New York City. There I was, sitting in a crowded room among people—business people—who had paused their days to actively cultivate compassion. Salzberg guided us in techniques that are literally thousands of years old, while an exquisite image loomed, large and benevolent, behind her. And it was, for all intents and purposes, just another Wednesday. Afterwards, I sat down to find out a bit more about the mixture of art and meditation.
Megan Mook: This is a program about art and meditation. Do you think they are natural complements?
Sharon Salzberg: I do. I have this image of someone rushing through a museum, of barely looking at anything—maybe because that’s our normal way of being. Art is a call to be more meditative and mindful. To slow down and be more present.
MM: How does one use art as a meditation focus?
SS: There’s lots of ways at looking at art. One way is to quiet the mind and see where it takes you. Art is obviously conveying things to the imagination; it’s not a spoken analysis. In that way, it can be a very contemplative experience.
My friend Mark Epstein quotes James Joyce on art, about how you should look at art, “If you hold it too close, it becomes pornography; if you hold it too far, it becomes criticism. It should be beheld.”
Beholding our space is very much a part of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is about creating a reciprocal relationship.
MM: What is meditation for you?
SS: I think of meditation as a three part skill training in, 1., concentration, 2., mindfulness, and, 3., compassion. Mindfulness is a clarifying of our attention of our habits of holding on and pushing away, so that these habits no longer get in our way. I often say that mindfulness is an uncluttering of our attention.
Training in compassion can sound cold and mechanical, but it’s a skill that can be cultivated. For example, if you go into a shop and you look through the sales person, if you never really see their humanity, compassion is not likely to arise, but if you practice actually looking at that person, then you can use the interaction to cultivate compassion.
MM: Your teaching places a high degree of emphasis on developing compassion and loving-kindness. How does using art as a meditative focus fit into this?
SS: Art allows for flow, for crossover. The same is true of meditation. Many people mistake mindfulness for self-consciousness. “Now I’m reaching for the pen.” Doing that will drive you crazy. Meditation is embodied. It’s about getting into the flow, and not buying into the voice that says “I’ll never be good enough.” Last year when I was working on my latest book Real Happiness at Work, I kept asking myself, “Why did you EVER choose this totally overwhelming topic?” Meditation offers us a way to get out of that self critical, condemning voice that can easily get in our way.
MM: Many artists say they get lost in a meditative flow while they create. Is this flow the same as meditation? In other words, can art serve as a substitute for formal meditation practice?
SS: I get asked this question all the time in various ways. People say they don’t need to meditate because they have this other avenue. That might be. They ask why art—or whatever it is—can’t be their practice. It can be. But it’s also very helpful to have a tool that you can take with you anywhere, to work or school, for example. Places where tempers can flare up and there’s anxiety. Places where you can’t start swimming laps, or pull out a piece of paper and sketch. But breathing, that’s your resource for not getting so lost in the emotion, and it’s completely portable. There’s so many challenging moments that we could do so much better in if we could just take a breath and be present with what is happening, knowing that we have internal resources.
We can cultivate compassion and mindfulness as inner resources. Classically, it’s said that mindfulness brings about wisdom, or insight. The understanding that everything changes and that we are all connected. As much as we divide things into self and other, the truth is we are a great big we.
Tickets to the meditations are $15 (free to members).
Be sure to sign up in advance at RubinMuseum.org.
For a list of well known artists who have a formal meditation practice, check out the Rubin Museum’s blog to see them.
YogaCity NYC is excited to offer a 10% discount to our readers with code YOGACITY.